ONYX COLLECTIVE’S PAST AND PRESENT
By Stella Schnabel
Onyx collective. Onyx — a black stone not supple. Carrying energy. Beams of light. Dark passages found in Mesopotamia. Onyx — a banded variety of the oxide mineral chalcedony. Onyx has parallel bands. The Sea of Marmara in Asia Minor. Very popular with the Romans, who carved the pattern of the seal in negative relief to give a raised point. Onyx — the Greek word for “claw” or “fingernail.”
Free. Enchanting. Communicative. These are a few of the words I might choose to describe the feeling Onyx Collective provokes. I always hate writing about something when people haven’t heard it yet; it is as if you are telling them what to hear. Or what they are going to hear. But soon, soon you will be inflicted by this magical sound that is new and evokes old sounds and stories.
One of the things that caught me was that these people who are so young are making music that summons up such ancient feelings. How does a twenty-one-year-old kid from Brooklyn blow through a reed made of cane — a grass plant grown in moist soils, sprouting up for thousands of years from the banks of the Nile River — and into a tube of brass and bathe you in high feeling? How do people put wood to drum-skin, flesh to nickel, the yarn of a mallet to a vibraphone’s aluminium bars and awaken in us what is most noble and most primitive all at once? These are things mere words can never explain — go, go and hear for yourself.
I went and this is what I saw:
It was a broken New York ruin, a sea of youth, down at the old stone amphitheatre on the East River. The Greeks would have sat in such a structure and watched Oedipus gouge out his eyes.
Skaters. Contemporary trends stolen from the 90’s. Hippies, rockers, rappers, hip-hoppers, sluts, kids flying the black flag of themselves, wanting to have fun. Rows of kids. Half moon rows of kids. The show had already started when I arrived, hopping towards the front along benches and scraping shoulders, getting a good position with a direct view. Clouds of pot smoke. Everybody smoking weed. It felt like one of those outdoor concerts they have in Jamaica in a yard. I had never been to a gig there, just Dash Snow’s memorial, when Gang Gang Dance did perform. Something about it made me feel like I wasn’t at a regular show. There was a feeling of seance. Then, there like a harpy, I was clouded with this sound, like a constant train passing. Or Sufi music, twirling Dervish stuff. Hypnotic. Enraptured. Gaining trance. Transistor. It somehow was emblematic of the feeling of after a snow storm. All other sounds were absorbed by this effervescent siren that seemed to console and silence all else.
That word jazz is dead, defunct, worn down by overuse to a worthless nub. It has always resisted dictionary definition. I could use it to describe what I heard that day but I won’t because what I heard has nothing to do with some old trumpet, the saliva long dried, preserved behind glass in the Library of Congress. It’s like these kids had come across a smoldering ash heap in the desert and bent down to blow life into it, watching and learning how fire works and then adding their own kindling, their own influences and voices, and bringing the flames back to health, tending to them, making them new. And we were gathered, drawn from all over the city to watch it burn and feel its heat.
Of course we were somehow aware that we were listening to a kind of music that hadn’t united the city’s tribes since the sixties. We somehow knew the stories of the lonely heroes who had tended that same fire, some of them singed, mutilated and killed doing their duty. But here was the real thing, pure and hard, not delivered through the swarming zeroes and ones of a computer or the pages of a book. It touched the part of the brain we share with reptiles, awakened whatever we inherited from our pre-verbal cave-dwelling predecessors, planted us firmly in the present moment and pointed toward the wide-open future. It did all of those things as no other music can. But enough of mere words — go and listen for yourself, go and stand by the fire and hear the logs pop and see the sparks bloom into the sky. As Hobbes reminds us “life is nasty brutish and short.” Get it while it lasts…
“Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.” -Shakespeare